Taking a breath and easing frustration…

So something has sat heavy on my chest for a while now and it’s about time I cleanse my soul and get it out there. Forgive me in advance if I ramble, but hopefully this is coherent. White and Non-Black POC LGBT (more the former) are a growing disappointment for me. As a gay black man, I’ve always had such high hopes about our potential unity and ability to push for all forms of equality.  I suppose I’ve always known that to be a pipe dream, but it has only become more apparent now.

Black Women are under attack on Twitter for daring to ask that they be allowed to exist.  For daring to ask that they be represented fairly.  For daring to ask that their stories be perhaps told by them before others.  And I’ve seen a great deal of pushback coming from the LGBT community, a community which should inherently understand why Black Women are actively seeking these things.  But what I’ve come to understand of white LGBT is that they aren’t after a more equal and representative society.  They’re just trying to get their full-fledged white card back (Baldwin pointed this out years ago).  Non-black POC LGBT are just trying to scoot in a little closer to whiteness and will tout that anti-blackness to do it.

I’ve seen it more times than I can count and if we’re going to just be frank, one of the foundations of popular LGBT culture is appropriation (see all the white gay men who refer to having an inner ghetto black woman) and simultaneous degradation of blackness.

I watched in horror a couple of weeks ago as an incredible black woman author was torn apart by racist, trolls, bigots and flat out disgusting people for daring to try and spread positivity.  And what did white LGBT tweeters take the greater offense to?  That the author’s hashtag came across as ignoring another marginalized group. This incredible author, graciously and humbly, changed the hashtag only to be attacked MORE VICIOUSLY. And there was a great void of silence as she and other black women were left to drown in this sea of hate.

But this is another insidious trend I’ve noticed amongst white LGBT Twitter.  You far too often use your marginalization not as an identity to be uplifted and celebrated, but as something to pound the bad, non-compliant POC over the head with.  And if you’re not pounding them over the head with it, you’re using it as a shield to deflect getting called out on your anti-blackness. Then you have the nerve to reap the benefits of all the work these black women have put in to make a way for all of us. You refer to black women making a point as dramatic, mobbish and hostile all the while you sit on the sidelines as they fight not just for themselves, but for your sorry, no good asses too.  It’s pathetic. It’s disgusting.  YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER.

You should understand it better than any white person, but I think you do understand it.  You understand how treacherous a road it is and it’s why you so desperately want your full privileges of whiteness back. You drink the chalice of anti-blackness because it is safe. You let black women get attacked because it is safe.  You run to your marginalizations as a hammer and shield because it is safe.  In greater society, you form relationships with the police knowing good and well how they treat QPOC. You cozy up to the same people who oppress in the hopes that you can get them to focus their attention elsewhere.

I see you.  You ain’t shit and I definitely see you.

Adapting Will Not Stop That Bullet

One bit of rhetoric or “wisdom” (as I’m sure they perceive it) is that Black people should adapt to their racist environment and merely “comply” with police if they want their lives to matter.  I have to be frank and say that shitty ass logic should be jettisoned to the end of the Solar System.  And Pluto would probably send it back to us because of how filthy and wrong of an idea it is.  Adaptation to a racist environment will not stop the bullets of a cop and it will not stop the inhuman views of people who willingly choose to see Black people as “less than”.  Let’s run through some of these strategies and see exactly what we’re looking at.

Adaptation Strategy #1: Drive a Cheaper Car

So Chris Rock was in the news recently for the many times he was pulled over by police in a phenomena many of us know as “Driving While Black” (it’s a crime in 50 states didn’t ya know?).  Don Lemon (aka one of the biggest idiots we’re unfortunately going to have to deal with for the next ten years) had Isiah Washington on his CNN “show” (I use that term SO loosely) and Washington suggested that Rock should “adapt” and drive a cheaper car.  The suggestion is basically to help avoid the stereotype of black people with expensive cars being seen as drug dealers.

Let’s follow the logic here.  So driving an expensive car creates more police interaction then the inverse should be true and driving a less expensive car should create less police interaction.  This adaptation strategy is so painfully easy to call BS on because by that logic no poor black neighbor should have any traffic stops occurring. Yet, statistics on police traffic stops show again and again that it is black drivers that are more routinely stopped.  And I seriously doubt these are all Bentleys and Jaguars getting pulled over.

It is not the make of our car, but the color of our skin that automatically makes us suspicious.  And let’s get to the real root of why Black people in expensive cars are thought to have drug dealings.   That belief stems from the racist view that Blacks ultimately cannot generally be successful without it being handed to us, garnering the success through illegal means or just happening to be one of the few to “make it out”.   The middle-class, educated Black American does not exist in the country’s psyche and if it does it’s only there as a rarity.

That is the attitude that should be changed.  Not the make of our cars.

In a nutshell:  I drive a car.  I will get pulled over more.  End of story.

Adaptation Strategy #2: Dress Respectfully

This is one I see frequently thrown around when it comes to sagging pants, baggy clothes and even hair styles like dreadlocks (looking at you Anthony Mackie).  The idea behind this is that if we are more “presentable” then it’s less likely we’ll encounter racist attitudes in our daily lives.  Do you smell that?  That’s the horse shit piling up from every time someone has opened their mouth to spit that lie out.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly a fan of dirty underwear exposed in public.  But the idea that this style of dress has somehow contributed to racist reactions and attitudes just isn’t true.

As I often point out to people, if this logic was true then Martin Luther King and participants in the Civil Rights Movement would have had the red carpet laid out for them and The President would have had a gala waiting for them to celebrate signing The Civil Rights Act.  Because if dressing properly somehow deflects racism then you have to look no further than MLK to find the “appropriate” attire.  He was dressed in a suit quite often and the people who marched with him were in their Sunday’s best.  Yet, they were still hosed down in the street like animals and had vicious dogs set loose on them.   Their manner of dress had absolutely no effect on the racism that was unleashed upon them.

Let’s take it back further.   Look at the 20s and the style of fashion in that time.  If dressing nice is somehow a “racism blocker” then Langston Hughes should have won back to back Pulitzers and Bumpy Johnson should have had twenty years on City Council.   But that’s not how it worked.   Our manner of dress does not give us humanity in a racist society and it shouldn’t be the thing by which anyone’s worth as a person is measured anyway.

In a nutshell:  I can catch a bullet in a white tee or a Polo shirt.  My life is valued the same either way.

Adaptation Strategy #3: Speak Articulately

I hear this one a lot and as an aspiring writer, I do value language and using it well.   And it would be foolish to suggest that communication skills aren’t vital in many areas of life.  But it’s not just Black people that suffer this misbegotten “wisdom”.  It’s also levelled at Latinos, Asians and generally anyone with the status of immigrant.   It would seem in America that if you want your life to be valued, you have to be able to speak “proper” English.  We would probably have a lot less problems with world relations if we approached learning another language with the same vigor, but that’s another topic.

The problem with this particular adaptation is that Blacks who are considered to fit the bill suffer through their own racist indignities.   You’re often told that you’re “different” (particularly when an individual or group of white people are criticizing your racial group and you walk into the room).  You hear that “you speak so well”, implying that so many others of your kind they met haven’t.  In essence, you become like that animal in the zoo that everyone wants to “ooo” and “aahh” at because you’re so rare.  It is humiliating when you’re constantly treated like some anomaly that shouldn’t exist.

And let us not forget the example of Martese Johnson, a well-spoken college student, who still found his head bashed into the ground.  Or Kam Brock, a woman of executive level status, who was placed in a psych ward against her will for saying President Obama followed her on Twitter among other things.  I’m sure this woman was very well-spoken and her humanity was still utterly disregarded.

Not speaking “properly” certainly comes with a unique set of perceptions and racist viewpoints, but fitting the notion of what it means to “speak articulately” is just trading in those perceptions for a set of new ones.  And let’s be real, if speaking properly was really that important to the American people we would not have had George W. Bush in office twice.

In a Nutshell:  The words that come out of my mouth cannot and should not determine the level of racism I experience. 

I don’t want to drag on too long, but the problem with telling people what to do to avoid racism is essentially blaming the victim.  We did not create the racist infrastructure that exists in this country today and somehow it ends up on our doorstep to “adapt” to it.  But the problem with adapting is the idea that somehow racism is a fluctuating thing that only applies to a certain type of “person” within that racial group.   I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never heard the KKK say they only disliked Black people with baggy pants.   Hitler didn’t say he only wanted to eradicate Blacks that spoke badly.

What needs to be fixed isn’t the perceived actions and behaviors of Black people.  What needs to be changed is a system that allows those misguided notions to take root and have validity in the first place.

Unacknowledged History: The Need for a Pre-Colonial Narrative in the Discourse of Colonized and Exploited People

Author:  Greg Rosa

Professor Gerald Early describes an incident when teaching a passage of Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield, displaying his ignorance, describes Egyptians as “an ancient race of Caucasians residing in…Africa.” Some of his black students took umbrage, and he was confused by their reaction. Early comes to the conclusion that the students were reacting to a perceived impingement on an aspect of history the saw as their own, and that they saw that putting on a pedestal (so to speak) was part of the students’ “attempt to create a true black self-consciousness or to create for blacks a world in which they can see themselves through their own eyes.” But as Toni Morrison rightly points out, “in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled the literary discourse.” It is important to expose the evasions of history, and thereby contribute to a much needed discourse about the role and place of Africa in world history.

When time and again there is an exclusion from the story of “world history,” “world civilization,” “human history,” the natural inference is that anyone or anything not a part of that story is therefore not a significant member of the “world” or its “history,” and by extension, can be considered to be not significantly “human.” This is a conceptual process which is illuminated by a quote from Keith Thomas’ masterful study, Man and the Natural World. Thomas writes that “if the essence of humanity was defined as consisting in some specific quality, then it follow[s] that any man who did not display that quality was subhuman, semi-animal.” The idea is not to try to go back to some mythical past or to enforce a new order dialogue where a mythical past informs the present and begins a myth-making endeavor, constructed by, and at the service of, intellectuals. For, as Antonio Gramsci wrote in his essay on “Hegemony,” the intellectuals are “the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government;” they are (he writes) “functionaries of the state whose role is to enforce dominant ideology.” It is long past time to call for our academic institutions apply the same level of research and rigor to a human history that is far more diverse and truly “multicultural” than most courses in “World History,” “Ancient Literature,” World Civilization,” or any standard history, would have you believe.

There has been a comprehensive glossing over of the part that people of color have contributed not only to world history generally, but also European and American history specifically. Restoring Africa’s central place in the story of humanity would serve to regain some measure of integrity and honesty to the discourse of human history among the academic and intellectual establishment.

It is important, first of all, to understand that a discussion of Africa needs to step away from the cage of colonial thinking, whether pre or post. James Ngugi’s (Ngugi wa Thiong’o) contention that the language of African literature – and by extension, its history – “cannot be discussed meaningfully outside the context of those social forces which have made it both an issue demanding our attention and a problem calling for resolution,” offers up a very limited perspective. That focus only takes in a narrow view of history. The presence of Africa is a part of the human story from the very first. Ngugi takes up the issue of education in his book Decolonizing the Mind. He situates education, as with literature, in its “relationship to imperialism in its colonial and neo-colonial stages.” However, African literature, like its history, predates the imperial powers by centuries, if not millennia. The notions of education and literature – as well as history – would be better served if they were placed within the historical context.

On the opposite side of the spectrum of Western exclusivity is the idea of Afrocentrism. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Afrocentrism as “a cultural and political movement whose adherents regard themselves and all other blacks as syncretic Africans and believe that their worldview should positively reflect traditional African values.” The problem with that view is that it treats Africa as one homogenous group with a shared heritage and shared values. That is an intellectually suspect position, at best. But between the two extremes lies the more measured propositions put forth by Martin Bernal and others. They hold that “Egyptian medicine, mathematics, and astronomy…critically influenced Greek science.”

To that list can be added literature as well. The sources of many of the Greek (and later, Roman) myths and stories, which obviously had their antecedents in Egyptian mythology and stories. The River of the Dead, the Ferryman, etc., all had their genesis from Egyptian originals. There are substantial references to Africa in Roman literature, such as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And one only has to read Plato to discover he acknowledged the influence of Egyptian writers and scholars on his own work. There was cultural exchange between the various societies. Egypt was not buried in the sands of history, an ancient, dead, dry “long ago” that existed in its own bubble and impacted very little in terms of the human story. Interactions with Egypt and Africa were a significant part of Roman history. Not only was the future of the Republic decided when Marc Antony’s fate was sealed in Egypt, there was also the significant impact of Hannibal both militarily and on the Roman psyche. Although much is made of Rome and its martial prowess, the African general had the country on its knees for decades before he was defeated. The Romans considered him a worthy adversary, and even a casual reading of Plutarch could see that he significantly impacted the Roman mindset. The Romans saw no glory in overcoming someone who could so easily be defeated. Although in today’s world Hannibal would be demonized, deemed barbaric, mocked and castigated as being less than human, he was more like the Soviet Union to America during the height of the Cold War: someone who was a counterbalance, and could very well put them in their place(and in fact he had done for some time).

Along with Toni Morrison, I too, am “convinced that the contemplation of the black presence is central to my understanding of our national literature.” The same can be said to be true, by extension, of our shared cultural history. Only I would not limit the black presence and influence in our literature and culture to be extant only from the time of the colonial powers and the post-colonial period, but extending far backwards to the dawn of our human story. There is no need to mythologize the past as some who adhere to Afrocentric views might do. Nor is there a need to retreat back into some theoretical conceptual framework that ignores the English-speaking world, as Ngugi has done. The proper placement of Africa in the human story is to examine the continent and its many countries not only in their relationship with one another, but also in relationship to the typical triumvirate which are usually explored in world history – Greece-Rome-Western Europe(-America). To that end, I agree with essayist Gayatri Spivak that “a nostalgia for lost origins can be detrimental to the exploration of social realities,” and skews our viewpoint and makes things less clear, not more. There is no need to mythologize. There is only the need to look through accepted scholastic lenses and describe what is already known and acknowledged. Then we can say, along with Morrison, “in what public discourse can the reference to black people be said not to exist? It is there in every moment.” Africa has shaped our biology, our history, and our stories. Ignoring Africa is exactly the same as denying your own history and family, and with the same effect: it alienates us from ourselves.

The Importance of Diversity in Media and What We Can do About It

Diversity seems to be a buzzword of late.  People are asking for it more and more.  I think that’s a natural outgrowth of our country becoming a truly representative melting pot.  But as is also natural with our country, what is different is often met with harsh resistance.  For those who oppose varied races, sexuality, religions etc. appearing in our multiple forms of media, they often see diversity as some creeping disease.  Something that is going to infect their childhood dreams or corrode concepts/ideas they consider to be pure.  To them, increasing diversity is like some apocalyptic trumpet being sound from Revelation, signaling the end to what they know.  That view is precisely why diversity in the media is needed.

The examples are both old and new.   When Joss Whedon first introduced believable lesbians into Buffy the Vampire Slayer he was bombarded for it.  Donald Glover recently bringing up the idea of being a black Spider-Man created a torrent of negative comments on the internet.  Andrew Garfield, the man currently playing the character, suggested that Spider-Man could be bisexual and still work.  By the reaction he received, you would have thought he suggested the Pope liked to cross dress on the weekends.  More recently, you had the name of Idris Elba being floated around as a possible 007.  Prompting an obviously racist admission from Rush Limbaugh that he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of there being a black 007.

But it hasn’t all been gloom and doom.  Shonda Rhimes has made it a point to show believable gay characters in her primetime shows and has vigorously defended their presence.  She also has consistently shown strong black females throughout her shows and Fox (of all stations) actually has some pretty impressive black women in their cable line-up.  Marvel Comics has a Muslim teenage girl carrying the name of Ms. Marvel and they’ve given many fans the long anticipated announcement of a Black Panther movie.  The record smashing show Modern Family has probably allowed blended families across the nation to feel a little more normal. And while there has been some controversy about casting a black 007, would that have even been a possibility two decades ago?  So we’re making strides, but there is so much more to conquer.

What do we have to conquer?  Fear and ignorance.  Those are the emotions that is at the heart of all the resistance to showing the full breadth of America in media.  Straight people uncomfortable with their sexuality or driven by religious mores can’t understand or want to understand gay people.  White people, comfortable in their privilege, pull back from racial diversity because it is a challenge to the privilege that subconsciously they know they have.  Christians frown at the idea of showing other religious beliefs because they fear it chips at their own values and morals.  The list goes on and on, but ultimately people recoil from diversity because they either don’t understand it, are afraid of it or walk around with some combination of the two.

Despite today’s increasing number of ways to connect with one another, there have been some unintended consequences which help exacerbate some of this fear and ignorance.  Media, in all its forms, is now so plentiful that people can read, watch, and talk with people who think and act just like them without ever having to be exposed to other thoughts and ideas.  This is dangerous because people who do this tend to think that their views are majority and therefore they feel entirely in the right when resisting efforts at diversity.  You can feel justified in saying Captain America shouldn’t be black when your entire timeline on Facebook agrees with you.  You can feel justified in saying that Rue from Hunger Games shouldn’t have been black when everyone you associate with is as ill-informed as you.

So it can seem like a bit of a hopeless battle to combat diversity, but this where people who champion diversity must not fall into the same trap.  You cannot just associate with people who believe in diversity as much as you do and want to see it flourish.  That’s not going to create the kind of landscape we need.  People who want to see diversity have to be unafraid in fighting for it.  Writers, directors, artists and other creators have to be willing to take their work where it may not necessarily be wanted at first.  But I think if nothing else is certain in this country it’s that great work will rise to the top no matter the source.  Black directors can’t be afraid to go white audiences and ask them to watch their film.  Hispanic novelists can’t be afraid to go to Asian communities and connect their work with them.  The gay rapper (yes they do exist) can’t be afraid to go to straight audiences and show them their music matters too.  Bringing about true diversity requires courage.

How does diversity benefit us?  In this point I am reminded of Adiche’s speech about the danger of the “one story”.  It was a powerful speech and in it she points out the dangers of diluting people, cultures, religions etc. down into a singular story.  She said “the danger in stereotypes is not whether they are true or not, but in that they do not tell the whole story”.  How amazing and powerful is that?  This is why we need diversity in media.  It allows us to see people from all their angles.  We get to see that gay men aren’t just promiscuous party animals.  We get to see that black men can be fathers and aren’t always some hyper masculine figure.   We get to see that Africa is not a wasteland of poverty and that not all Muslims are walking around with a bomb strapped to their chest.  Diversity is as powerful as any education.

J. Cole said on his most recent album that Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the only father figure he grew up with. I found that both sad and powerful. Powerful because it speaks to the strength of a creator and what a writer, musician, filmmaker, actor etc. can do.  They can fill voids in people’s lives.  How many black youths might strive for better if they had a show like A Different World on?  How many Chinese families might find catharsis and truth if there were more novels like The Joy Luck Club?  How many transgender youth might avoid the tragedy of suicide if there were more actresses like Laverne Cox to show them that life gets better?  A diverse media is an engine for hope and healing.  It allows people who feel miserably different to see that their lives can be full of promise.  People who need to know that their lives do matter can find it in stories that speak to their worth.

Simply, diversity in media allows everyone in society to see themselves as equally worthy.  And all the best friendships come from a place where you respect one another as such.

-Brent Lambert
Founder R.R.A.P. (Race Relations in the Arts and Politics)